There's not only a debate taking place about whether NFL players should kneel or stand for the national anthem, there's a debate about how brands should respond.
"Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society," Nike Inc. (NKE) said in a statement on Monday, Sept. 25.
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Nike was the first NFL corporate sponsor to directly respond to the issue. After President Donald Trump ranted on Friday against NFL players 'taking a knee' during the anthem, several teams and athletes protested to show solidarity with the movement. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked it all when he knelt for the anthem early last year in support of Black Lives Matter.
Trump has since continued his charge against the NFL and its players on Twitter Inc. (TWTR) into Tuesday, Sept. 26.
The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can't kneel during our National Anthem!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
"I do believe corporations have to be sensitive of supporting players without getting sucked into the political argument," said Marc Kalan, a consumer marketing professional and professor at Rutgers Business School.
Other NFL sponsors, including Anheuser Busch Inbev NV (BUD) and Under Armour Inc. (UA) , issued more-neutral responses, pledging support for both players' right to protest and the flag. Ford Motor Co. (F) said it respects athletes' views "even if they are not ones we share."
Kalan told TheStreet on Tuesday that "people will remember" these company reactions. It's "a complex situation," he said, because ultimately "[companies] make their money selling products," so they have to be mindful of the sales impact they could see arise from ostracizing certain consumers.
James Sammataro, a leading entertainment attorney and partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, told TheStreet on Tuesday that while he thinks most companies should take a more-neutral stance, it made sense for Nike to be bold.
"It's a business decision like anything else," Sammataro said. "I'm not surprised by Nike's position."
Sammataro said he would be surprised to see a less-vocal company like Campbell Soup Co. (CPB) , for example, come out with a similar statement.
Nike has been vocal on a host of social issues, including in showing support for LGBTQ rights. Last year, Nike terminated its endorsement contract with Manny Pacquiao after the boxer, while campaigning for a Senate seat in the Philippines, made derogatory comments about same-sex couples, calling them "worse than animals."
Sammataro noted that both of Nike's star NBA brand ambassadors, Stephen Curry and LeBron James, have been vocal against Trump, too. A Twitter storm erupted between Cleveland Cavaliers' James and the president after Trump rescinded a White House invitation to Golden State Warriors' star player Steph Curry, even though Curry was unlikely to show up anyway.
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
Still, Sandy Rubinstein, CEO of digital advertising agency DXagency, said in an interview with TheStreet on Tuesday that every company should be wary of taking political stances, Nike included.
"This topic has become so polarizing," Rubinstein said. "My recommendation is to take a step back. When brands start taking a political view, they should be mindful of everyone's opinion. What's the backlash going to be from military families? Veterans?"
On one side of the argument, people say kneeling for the national anthem is unpatriotic and disrespectful to those that served in the military. On the other side, people argue that the flag represents every American right, including the right to peacefully protest in the wake of social injustice.
In the end, Rubinstein said the NFL will be the most affected by the protests, not the brands.
"[NFL] viewership is in decline already," Sammataro added. "Sports are an escape from what's going on in the world. A lot of people don't want to deal with politics on a Sunday."
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